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GODSPELL (director/writer: David Greene; screenwriter: from the novel by John-Michael Tebelak/John-Michael Tebelak; cinematographer: Richard G. Heimann; editor: Alan Heim; music: Stephen Schwartz; cast: Victor Garber (Victor), David Haskell (David/John the Baptist/Judas), Katie Hanley (Katie), Jerry Sroka (Jerry), Lynne Thigpen (Lynne), Robin Lamont (Robin), Gilmer McCormick (Gilmer), Joanne Jonas (Joanne), Merrell Jackson (Merrell); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Edgar Lansbury; Columbia Tristar; 1973)
“The peppy no-name cast take to the parables like toddlers take to Sesame Street.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s adapted from the hit off-Broadway show by British cowriter and director David Greene (“Buster”/”I Start Counting “/”The Strange Affair”). The book’s author, John-Michael Tebelak, is the director’s cowriter. Stephen Schwartz hands in over a dozen musical scores that range from rousing song and dance numbers to sappy religious ballads. The most foot-tapping ones were “All for the Best,” “Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord),” “Save the People,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “By My Side,” and, the film’s biggest hit, “Day by Day.” It turns The Gospel of Matthew into a wacky youthful musical extravaganza and updates it to a modern-day New York City setting. A disparate group of Big Apple youngsters tell the New Testament tale mostly through song; when it goes dramatic it becomes unbearably dull. When in song, the joyous tone is infectious in its child-like simplicity; the peppy no-name cast take to the parables like toddlers take to Sesame Street.

John the Baptist (David Haskell) summons nine hassled ordinary working-class New Yorkers (four men and five women) via a musical instrument that only they seem to hear and they rush to Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, where they get their baptism. When a bushy-haired Jesus Christ (Victor Garber) clad in a Superman-shirt, suspenders and clown paint on his face, joins the group after baptized by John, they joyously bond together in a desire to spread the word of God around the crowded rat race infested city. The crew dance their way to a nearby junkyard to paint their faces in watercolors and throw away their civilian garb to outfit themselves as flower children in the old psychedelic clothes found in the junkyard. They’re now a roving acting troupe that enacts the Bible parables through song and dance, comedy, and mime. They wind their way through the World Trade Center, a tugboat and various other landmark spots. It ends with Judas (David Haskell, for some strange reason playing both John the Baptist and Jesus) doing his thing to Jesus and the crucifixion reenacted in the junkyard.

Viewing it today, it all seems badly dated, uninvolving and sophomoric. Hippies and Afros have long vanished somewhere into the American landscape and the musical is no longer a Hollywood staple. Jesus Christ Superstar came out the same year and easily surpassed this film in acclaim and box office.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”